Amara Enyia and Dorothy Brown are a match made in Chicago political theater

Enyia’s record raises many confounding questions about her commitment to transparency.

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Amara Enyia

Photo by April Alonso

Of the handful of “establishment” mayoral candidates leading the polls, none so far has been able to emerge as a real frontrunner because many have ties to Ald. Edward Burke, whose legal troubles have thrown City Hall into turmoil.

So it was a bit odd when Amara Enyia, who presents herself as a progressive reformer, embraced the endorsement of Cook County Clerk Dorothy Brown, who herself faces extensive legal and ethical issues.

Accepting the endorsement last Thursday, Enyia claimed both she and Brown are “focused on … breaking away from an establishment that’s mired in corruption.” The next day, the two met with the Chicago Sun-Times to attack Cook County Board President Toni Preckwinkle for, in Enyia’s words, “accepting a system and culture of corruption.”

There’s a small problem with that positioning, of course. Brown has for several years been the subject of a federal investigation into allegations that she sold jobs and promotions. One employee told the FBI that the “going rate” for a job in Brown’s office was $10,000. Last August, a federal judge revealed details from a 2015 FBI search warrant for Brown’s cell phone, including a former employee’s testimony that Brown personally picked up cash payoffs from employees at the home of her alleged “bagman.”

Brown has not been charged and has denied any wrongdoing, but one employee has pled guilty to lying to a grand jury about paying a $15,000 bribe to get a job and a former aide to Brown has been charged with lying about corruption allegations.

Brown is also far from a model of modern governance. Her antiquated office, still relying on manila folders and carbon paper, is responsible for hundreds of cases where prisoners are unable to file appeals because they haven’t been provided trial records, according to the state appellate defender.

In one case, the Chicago Reader asked Brown about the records of James Allen, who’d waited 16 months for his records request to be fulfilled after the Illinois Supreme Court ordered a post-conviction hearing. After a reporter called, it only took three days to deliver the documents.

Enyia praised Brown for having “been independent in caring and having a heart for the community.” It appears, though, that Brown cares mostly for herself.

As for Enyia, it’s another odd political alliance for the self-professed progressive. Four years ago she dropped out of the mayoral race and backed Ald. Bob Fioretti, while progressives were uniting around the candidacy of Jesús “Chuy” Garcia.

Troubles with taxes and transparency

On Friday, Enyia’s credibility took another hit when the Chicago Tribune reported that she had failed to report $21,000 in income — earned consulting for the gubernatorial campaign of Chris Kennedy — on her tax return. She also admitted that she knew but didn’t tell the public that her 2017 tax return was incomplete when she released the top two pages to the press early in January.

Eniya’s explanations for the error shifted widely during an interview with the Tribune. She also maintained that her tax troubles were related to her supposed low-income status, saying she “made the decision to work in spaces that are not lucrative.”

A mistake on taxes, if that’s what it was, doesn’t disqualify anyone from public service, though it doesn’t encourage confidence in Enyia’s claim to be a public finance expert. And for the record, Harold Washington’s tax troubles were entirely different: he failed to file returns for several years, but nearly all the taxes he owed were deducted from his paycheck, and a judge explicitly found no intention to defraud the government.

But for Enyia, these problems are part of a pattern. When she announced her candidacy last year it turned out that before filing with the board of elections, she had to pay off $73,000 in fines and penalties for failing to file updates on her 2015 campaign fund. That was an entirely unforced and very expensive error that raised the question of whether Enyia has the organizational capacity to run a viable citywide campaign.

Enyia’s refusal to release her full tax return also undermines her credibility as an advocate of transparency. Enyia has argued the purpose of releasing tax returns is so the media “can judge you based on income.” It isn’t. It’s to achieve some level of transparency regarding financial interests and potential conflicts of interest.

That’s underscored by the revelation that in September of 2017, Enyia began consulting for Kids First Chicago, a major school choice group. It was originally formed by the Commercial Club of Chicago to provide private financing for new schools under Mayor Richard M. Daley’s Renaissance 2010 program, which saw scores of neighborhood schools closed and scores of charter schools opened.

After a couple of name changes — and after charter schools lost their luster — the group was relaunched in 2015 with its current name by Daniel Anello, who was previously chief strategist at the Chicago International Charter School network. It continues to receive funding from the Commercial Club as well as from major school choice funders like the Gates Foundation, the Broad Foundation, and the Walton Foundation. Kids First is now “trying to shed its reputation as a primarily pro-charter, politically connected group,” according to Chalkbeat Chicago.

Still, Anello has spoken against an elected school board in Chicago and has criticized opposition to charter schools by the NAACP as “political grandstanding.”

KFC has paid Enyia $3,000 a month for part-time consulting, generally about five hours a week, assisting with “drafting communication releases and connecting folks on the West Side,” Anello told the Tribune.

Asked about the contract at a house meeting, Enyia said, “We have a responsibility to aid and transform what you might consider to be problematic institutions,” according to a video posted by a supporter. She said KFC approached her “and said we recognize what charter schools have become” and wanted to shift the group’s focus from school choice to “equity and engagement” and empowering communities. According to Enyia, she made clear her opposition to charters and told the group, “if you’re serious about transforming your organization so it’s not just cosmetic, it’s tangible, then I will work with you to do that.”

KFC’s major project in this period was an Annual Regional Analysis conducted for CPS, which some community groups feared was laying the groundwork for another round of school closings — particularly because it claimed to have identified 150,000 “empty seats” in CPS. At a press conference last October, Cassie Cresswell of Raise Your Hand warned that the report was “based on two flawed metrics,” CPS’s school quality performance reports, which rely heavily on test scores, and its utilization formula, which undercounts special education needs. She criticized the district for using the plan to set up a new round of competition among under-resourced schools.

The KFC report “assumes school choice as a primary driver of school improvement,” an assumption for which there’s little evidence, according to a critique by Raise Your Hand and other groups.

Indeed, contrary to Enyia’s claims, KFC seems to be more a matter of rebranding than transformation. Notes Chalkbeat, “The Kids First philosophy — that the district should offer a menu of different schools, with families encouraged to choose among them — is consistent with the portfolio model approach.” That was the strategy behind Renaissance 2010.

Another credibility issue involves the Institute for Cooperative Economics and Economic Innovation, which Enyia launched with some fanfare a year ago. It was going to pull together worker cooperatives and community land trusts, she said at the time; it would hold of a series of public workshops, provide technical assistance, and do advocacy work. It never got off the ground, according to the Tribune. But Enyia continues to cite it prominently as an example of her leadership and vision.

Enyia has no record in public office, so voters must rely on what she tells us about her experience and her beliefs. That requires trust, and trust must be earned. That takes more than charisma and grand elocutions. It takes consistency, transparency, and straight talk.